I am just finishing a great book, Street Gang, by Michael Davis, about the history of Sesame Street. As I read, I was reminded of my own childhood. I loved Sesame Street. Unfortunately, I don’t think that my children (or the other children of their generation) are benefiting from Sesame Street in the same way that my sisters and I did.
My oldest sister was a preschooler herself when the first episodes aired. My other sister watched in the early 70s and I tuned in in the late 70s and early 80s. Big Bird and Kermit were my favorite Muppet characters, while Bob and Maria were my favorite humans. And who could forget such gems as the pinball number count or the baker who fell down the stairs? I learned my letters, numbers, and a handful of Spanish words. Sesame Street, and in particular the Muppets, had such a profound effect on me that I cried when Jim Henson died–I felt like I’d lost family.
I do not for a moment claim that these early years were the best ones and the show was never again that good. Those feelings are natural, but they are mere nostalgia. In fact, Sesame Street remained consistently good enough that I occasionally tuned in all the way through high school. The reality is that the Sesame Street of the new millennium really is not as good as in any other decade preceding.
What made Sesame Street great was not just the characters, or the simple situations, or the humor. As a matter of fact, those things are still present in abundance for the better part of each episode. I appreciate the addition of new and interesting characters, both Muppet and human. As much as I loved the grown-up humans who populated the show during my early childhood, I think that it is great to see new, fresh faces. Of the new Muppets, I particularly like Rosita, the Spanish-speaking, guitar-playing blue monster.
Bear with me, I need to sidetrack for a moment. At our church, we’ve recently been talking about the concept of it. Now, in church, that carries with it the understanding that the Holy Spirit is the source of it. But there is such a thing as it in a secular sense, too.
Back to Sesame Street: On the rare occasion I have allowed my kids to watch, I have had this sense that something is missing. As I read and study more about this concept of it, I have come to realize that Sesame Street has lost it. The mere fact that any one character has more than a third of the show devoted to himself is an indication that someone is trying too hard to recapture it.
I understand that lots of kids adore Elmo. And I’m actually not picking on our poor, maligned red friend here. As a matter of fact, I like Elmo. Yes, you heard me right. In small doses, he is a welcome friend. Elmo has been around for many years. We have a DVD entitled “The Best of Elmo.” It really is Elmo at his best, and it represents what Elmo should be–a cute, furry,child-like Muppet who is learning about the world around him. His duet with Ernie, “One Fine Face,” is a favorite song in our household, and his talk with Whoopi Goldberg about wanting to trade skin is pricelessly precious.
The problem is that Elmo has gone from student to teacher. He now represents everything that is currently wrong with Children’s programming. There is a pervasive mistrust of adults, an attitude that kids are right and adults are peripheral. Not only that, but this child-centric (not child-centered) universe takes up nearly half of each episode, crowding out better material and greater opportunity for appropriate learning.
There was a time when Sesame Street was more than just another kiddie show. It was smart, innovative, creative, and cutting edge. Sesame Street, please return to your roots! Get away from this new child-in-charge attitude; be different, like you once were, and give our kids a real reason to tune in.